Why is Halloween Monstrous?

Samhain Offerings by Avia Venefica

 

This time of year is associated with ghosties and ghoulies and long leggedy beasties. But why? Apart from “it’s cold and dark and time for fires therefore stories”.

The derivation of Halloween from Samhain is a classic example of cultural evolution.

The exact details of the original festival are unclear, because the Celts wrote down very little – most of our sources are later and/or Roman, and thus it is akin to studying the Blitz using only present day memories or German sources. Still, we know many of the details, and as the festival never fully died out much more can be recovered from the later forms.

The world of the ancestors flows away from and towards our own, and comes close four times a year – at the beginning of each of the seasons. At Beltane – Mayday – the helpful spirits of the land cross over, and their blessings are welcomed with flowers and dance as summer begins. But at the beginning of Winter, darker spirits roam, and meeting one brings only curses. So the prudent householder would bribe the spirits with whatever he had excess of to ward off their ill will. The barley harvest falls in early September, so six weeks later, the first beer of the new year would just be ready, apples have also just been harvested and milk is less seasonal, so these became the traditional gifts. If one had a good harvest, one would share with neighbours, so that the spirits would see one as a good friend and be unable to harm the good man.

Young people would dress up as “spirits” and wander the village, claiming the bribes on behalf of the spirits. After all, are we not kin of the ancestors – and if they don’t turn up in person, don’t let it go to waste! The fact that the feast falls at the end of a period of very hard work – preparing for winter – probably contributes to this part of the celebration

Enter Christianity. The early church sought to adapt facets of the older faiths – it’s why Christmas falls so conveniently at Yule/Winter Solstice. The old spirits can’t possibly be good, therefore they must be devils. And anyone who feeds them must be witches. Of the old-crone-cursing variety, not our modern follower-of-a-nature-faith variety.

So, the Church co-opted the idea of reverence for the gone-before, and invented All Saints and All Souls – an opportunity for any local do-gooder to be remembered and prayed for, reducing time in Purgatory. They ditched the pagan aspect, and made the returning spirits evil. The sharing-with-neighbours part fit too, and became the Harvest Festival.

When the Americas were settled, Irish migrants took the old stories with them. As the USA developed its own culture as a blend of its constituent parts, the Irish merged with the French and Germanic witch and fairy traditions (for example, Oberon is first seen as an antagonist of Charlemagne) and All Hallows Eve became the time to mock the evil spirits by dressing as them. As sugar became a more prevalent product, giving the ‘ghosts’ a piece of sugar cane became easier than beer or milk. Sugar cane became chocolate, became any kind of Treat, to ward off the Tricks of the “fairy folk “.

Now Halloween means hordes of small children begging for candy, and teenagers demanding money in return for not putting fireworks through your door.. I’m not sure I like the evolution, so I celebrate this time of year by sharing the fruits of my labour. Here you go, neighbour! Have a whole lot of thinking.

So what?

If your fantasy culture has been around for a while – centuries or millennia – it has likely evolved in a similar fashion. There will be those who keep fast to some version of ‘the old ways’ and some who have applied them in new ways. If a nation has been conquered, colonised or even conquered others, the newcomers bring new customs and new gods, and few conquerors allowed the natives to worship unhindered. Even mundane things like introducing a new crop can reflect in the spiritual life of a people. According to a Papal Bull, capybara are officially fish (despite being rodents) so Catholics can eat them on Fridays.

Think about how the new gods and the old interact. Do you follow the Ice and Fire model of “some worship one set, some the other, mostly they coexist, and that’s fine”

The Roman model of “Zeus? You mean Jupiter. Sulis? Oh, you mean Athena.”

The Christian model of “Our god is the only god and all others are evil”

Or even the Mongol model “there are many gods, and yours are ok, as long as you don’t try to convert us”

When languages merge, you get dialects and creoles. When cultures collide, you get history. And what is history but another branch of storytelling?

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M is for Morrigan – Mythic Mondays

Morrigan alights upon the dying Cuchulain Photo by Kman999 - Kman999 on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

Morrigan alights upon the dying Cuchulain
Photo by Kman999 – Kman999 on Flickr, CC BY 3.0

We’re back with the Celts, who love their goddesses in threes. There are three goddesses of Ireland – Eriu, Banba and Fotla. Three goddesses of fertility – Brigid, Boann, and Etain. And three battle goddesses. Morrigan is sometimes one of these, and sometimes the sum of all three. Her sisters are Badb and Macha.

Modern witches tend to clump all these goddesses into a single triumvirate – the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Not all sets of three neatly fit, but there are enough similarities for wiccans to represent the primal forces in this simpler fashion. In this way, they seek to conflate goddess-aspects from many pantheons, to better understand them.

Morrigan is the Crone aspect, signifying mortality and Fate. She is also, in her favorite form of the raven, the chooser of the slain of the Celtic battlefield, combining the roles of both the Norns and Valkyries

Most of the Celtic priesthood – the dru-vids, the Oaken-wise – would worship whichever deity suited their needs, or the needs of their king-host. Dedicated priests were rare, and the Celts saw their gods as merely a more advanced race than humans. Druids were responsible for communicating with the people of Annwn, the Celtic Underworld and Fairyland – not only gods, but any soul which had passed on, and not returned to a new life. Morrigan was appealed to for luck in battle, and in her role as psychopomp, to appeal to souls resident in Annwn

Story of the God

When Maeve stole the cattle of Ulster, all the men but Cuchullin were struck by a weakness. Cuchullin was only immune because he was only half a son of Ulster – half of his heritage was divine, being a son of Lugh.

So Cuchullin stood at the ford where the great river runs which borders Ulster, to fight against the champions of Maeve in single combat.

The Morrigan in the guise of a beautiful blond girl, came to offer him her love, and her aid in the battle. But Cuchullin rejected her.

So she went away and changed into the form of an eel. At the height of the fight. she tripped him, and he wounded her, but he won despite that.

So, Morrigan came again in her guise as a wily red headed girl and offered him magical aid in the battle, and her loving embrace. But Cuchullin rejected her.

So she went away and came back in the form of a wolf. At the height of the fight. she scared cattle over him, and he wounded her, but he won despite that.

For the third night, Morrigan came in the guise of a dark haired beauty, offering strength for the coming battle, and loving rest in her arms. And again Cuchullin rejected her.

So she went away and came back in the form of a red heifer. At the height of the fight. she led a stampede of cattle over him, and he wounded her, but he won despite that.

So, after the battle Morrigan appeared in the form of an old woman bearing the three wounds he had given her, and leading a cow. So Cuchullin knew that what faced him was one of the Tuatha de Danann. She offered Cuchullin a draught of milk, and he blessed her for it. His blessing healed her wounds, and in return she had nothing but the prophecy of his death.

“Had I known you, I might not have rejected you”

“You would have, for it is in your nature to be stubborn. And it is in this that your death lies, for in rejecting help, you rejected that which might have saved your life”

And so it came that a mighty army came, and one man could not stand against it. Whilst the Ulstermen recovered in time to save their country, it was not soon enough to save Cuchullin

In Your Games and Stories

As the weaver of Fate, Morrigan might give clerical spells of divination, and inspire works of craft – great swords, mighty shields, or tools to aid in foretelling the future. All the Celtic deities have a connection with song, so her followers would number bards as well as druids and clerics. Whilst her battle-aspect would imply her to be a favorite of fighters, few wished to incur her notice, preferring Ogma, Lugh or even Brigid

Castles belonging to followers of Morrigan would tend to be defended by puzzles and traps rather than monsters – unless you count hordes of fey warriors. Seek her in hollow hills and remote crags – or in Annwn, the Celtic Fairyland.

Morrigan could also appear in a political tale, in her role as outsider and observer. She might well know secrets unavailable elsewhere. But what price will the Lady of Fate require for her aid? Perhaps, like the blood-price for the Sons of Tuirenn, it will sound innocuous and be the source of a whole adventure to find.

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